The Successful Writer
The story’s story is no writer’s friend.
The path to glory distracts and wearies.
A story’s a story because it lies.
Some days, redemption is writing well,
Rounding up the words and making them small.
Some days—the hard ones—is not to write at all.
Mr. Cheese at Dusk
I couldn’t give up cheese, my neighbor says,
When I tell him what I eat since I almost died.
Mr. Cheese, leaning on the lamp post, laughs
To hear this now familiar refrain.
He follows me around just to hear it.
It makes his day, such heartfelt devotion,
Clearly evidenced by my neighbor’s waist.
Cheese always wins. My students, in stories
Can find places they’ve never been beforeâ€”
Inside themselves, an undiscovered crossroadsâ€”
And thenâ€¦ they hitch a ride with Mr. Cheese
For a car chase (goes without saying, right?)
A vampire, a serial killer, both.
The whole fucking thing’s like just a dream, right?
How cool is that? Cheese asks, laughing so hard
He can’t stop. No one can stop Mr. Cheese.
Down the street we see three deliverers,
Blinkers flashing, carrying Cheese in their arms,
Swaddled to keep him warm. Come baby, come,
Come let’s adore him, baked into a pie.
Mr. Cheese, he stick with you till you die.
I must tell you this.
You must listen.
You’re thinking, no I don’t, but
you keep reading, wonderingâ€”
And here it is five lines in
or even more, if I
get all wonky with the line
breaks and these long parentheticalsâ€”
leading you on,
leading you nowhere,
leaving you wondering
How did I let this happen?
Why did I listen?
What did he say?
How did I get here in
Some days it’s hard to get inside the fictional dream I’m creating, and I have to pick the lock with a little revision.Â Even something small and local can get you inside.Â Verbs are especially helpful.Â Why that verb?Â Does that really capture the character’s intentions, emotions, and circumstance?Â Let’s ask him.Â That’s better.Â Next thing you know, four pages.
I was recently prompted to write Nancy Kress after reading her interview in Locus. I was struck by how similar our writing processes are, and how similarly we speak of them. I could have written her description of her process, including the apologetic disclaimer that it’s scarcely a process at all.
In short, I start with almost nothing, a character who’s scarcely a character, since she hasn’t done anything yet (though this one just became female). She may have an interesting voice, be in an interesting place, or be faced with an interesting situation. Then we see what happens next, what she wants to do about it. However many pages laterâ€”6 or 400â€”the story ends.Â I’m leaving out lots of details from this recursive, revision intensive journey that I suppose crawls right out of my unconscious onto the page in some weird dance with the paper people I hang out with.
The guys with the real process make outlines, write detailed character sketches, know the ending before they begin the journey.Â I know good writers from both tribes, though I have no statistical survey and there are certainly many hybrids.Â The Planners are perhaps more prescriptive.Â The Vagabonders tend to apologize for their meandering ways.Â Why the disclaimer? I’m sure I pass this insecurity onto my writing students of the same ilk at the same time I’m trying to persuade them to have faith in their process. The ones who like to make outlines and detailed character sketches and so on before ever getting underway suffer from different self doubts.
I make outlines, maps, floor plans and such on the fly, as needed.Â The outlines are more often of where the story’s been than where it’s going.Â Revision of the past propels the story into its future.Â I see the ending along the way.Â Some journeys are scuttled.Â Though often, if one traveler hooks up with another, they manage to get the whole thing going again to a place neither had imagined before setting out.
No matter what sort you are, trust your process.Â Whatever works.Â Have a good time.Â Set out.
I recently had a dispiriting exchange with a former student on Facebook.Â I’d said something about revision, being in the midst of it, and she commented she’d abandoned fiction after grad school and worked in non-fiction where revision made sense, a process she described as “tuning the language and getting the story correct.”Â But in fiction, she observed, “what’s to change if the story is just ‘made up’?”
Where did I go wrong?Â I won’t quibble with “tuning the language” except to ask “to what frequency?”Â And a quick perusal of Fox News, PBS, and Scientific American might lead to the conclusion that not every true story has the same “correct” for everyone.Â But this “made up” charge misses the point.Â All lies are made up, but are all equally effective?Â You parents are familiar with bad lies and know what I’m talking about.Â There are teachable, usable skills for telling more effective lies.Â More importantly, this student is one of my most often quoted to later classes.Â At the beginning of her workshop, I asked the class to talk about what they considered to be good fiction.Â I had the usual answers for a while, straight from English classes of yesteryear, but then she said, “It changes your life.Â When you read a really good novel, it can change your life.Â That’s what I hope for every time I pick up a new novelâ€”that it will change me.”Â I would add that whatever magic the fiction may or may not work on the reader, it should work on the writer first.Â If the book I’m writing isn’t changing me, isn’t making me re-examine myself and my world, I feel like I should be writing a different book.Â So in answer to the question, “What’s to change?”Â I’d say yourself and others.Â Have you created a life-changing experience with words?Â No?Â Then revise.
I just read an unpublished novel to give the writer whatever helpful advice I could.Â I thought there were several problems, and I suggested some revisions, and maybe I will have helped and maybe I won’t.Â Even though some of the most important issues I had with the novel surfaced early in a fairly rocky beginning, I read to the end because it was one of those plots it’s difficult to judge without reading the whole thingâ€”which is probably roughly 100% of decent plotsâ€”and it did get better as it went along.
This got me to thinking.Â Maybe I would’ve served the writer better to stop when I first started having problems, when I first would’ve said to myself (if I’d bought it) “I paid $24.95 for this?”Â I wouldn’t be able to place my problems in a larger context, but so what?Â If the first 100 pages don’t work, the rest is toast anyway.Â Sometimes writers try to defend sluggish openings because it sets up the wonders to come.Â Lots of luck with that.
Another disadvantage of my having read the whole book is I’m now ruined as a first time reader forever.Â You want first readers, and they’re like first dates, one to a customer.Â This isn’t Groundhog Day.Â You can read a book the first timeâ€”like future editors willâ€”only once.Â Even if this writer revises the book following every nuance of my brilliant advice, in a way, I’d be the worst reader to give it another look.Â The ghost of the first read would haunt the reread.
Worse, I’d be invested.Â You see this in workshops all the timeâ€”folks defending a revision of a still-lame story because it incorporated some of the defender’s advice and strokes his ego.Â One of the problems with workshops generally is that they can enshrine the opinions of stale readers, especially if they’re bullies.
So perhaps in future, I’ll just ask to see the first 50 pages and report on that before proceeding.Â Hopefully, it will be an urgent, “Send more!”Â If such a procedure would make you anxious about the fate of your own novel-in-progress, may I humbly suggest (sight unseen) revision?
Iâ€™ve been asked to read an unpublished novel set in the mid-50s and give the writer some feedback.Â It has many, many virtues, but a minor recurring misstep thatâ€™s common enough to be worth sharing and commenting on.Â The main character is a smoker.Â His brand is Tareyton.Â So instead of lighting up a cigarette, he lights a Tareyton.Â He takes a Tareyton out of the pack and smokes it.Â When that oneâ€™s burned, he has another Tareyton.Â Whatâ€™s wrong with this?Â Isnâ€™t this an authenticating detail placing us authentically inside the time period?Â Isnâ€™t it like the Buick he drives and the Hudson he parks next to?Â No, because thatâ€™s not how smokers, now or then, think.Â It doesnâ€™t place us in the time period but outside the perspective characterâ€™s head into the author as docent.Â Instead of being in the fictional dream, weâ€™re looking at a diorama.Â Oh look, thereâ€™s the pack of Tareytons.Â If the character is thinking Tareyton, as in, â€œHe was thinking of switching brands.Â The Tareyton tasted like charcoal,â€� then it makes sense.Â People argued brands; some brands had a rep.Â Chainsmoking Luckies showed a certain suicidal gusto you couldnâ€™t achieve with other brands.Â Tareytons had the most obnoxious commercialâ€”Iâ€™d rather fight than switch.Â But in the years I lit up first and put on glasses second, I wasnâ€™t thinking brand, only smoke. Cigarette brands have their place.Â My mom smoked two brands, Parliaments and a revolving door of menthols.Â She liked the Parliaments because of the recessed filter, while other brands supposedly irritated her lips.Â About a third of her intake were menthol, which she fancied soothed her troubled lungs, but she could never find the one that pleased her like Parliaments.Â She counted how many she smoked of each kind on hash-mark-filled pads.Â But even she wasnâ€™t thinking brand name when she needed a smoke.Â If youâ€™re trying to be inside a time period or an alien universe either one, you canâ€™t do so successfully without being inside your characterâ€™s head first.Â And lungs, I suppose.Â Then the world will follow.
Writer friend and teacher of writing, Susan Heroy (a wonderful poet), told me she referred her students to my site for writing advice. Oh my God! was my first reaction. I always hesitate to pass out advice fearing it will be taken as authoritative. Even the best writing teachers are best at teaching you to write like them. I know folks who teach writing who never hesitate to be prescriptive: always use an outline, write in the present tense, avoid using dialogue, science fiction cannot be serious literature, etc., etc. I’ve heard all these from various authorities of my acquaintance. Their opposites as well. So what’s a writer to do? Seek out lots of teachers, lots of advice. My advice for today is the next time you find yourself stuck because you’ve run afoul of some influential mentor’s dictum, break the rule and see what happens. (Sorry, Susan, if this mucks things up too much!)
As a character in my as-yet-unpublished novel, The Donut Man, laments, “I’ve read so many books on [writing fiction], they all make a stew in my brain. Itâ€™s like the Bible. I can always find somebody to endorse what Iâ€™m doing in my fiction, just as many shaking their heads sadly at the mistakes Iâ€™m making. Write what you know. Write what you donâ€™t know. Trust the process. Always outline. Find your own voice. Pretend to be other people. Write down the bones bird by fucking bird. All of the above. Thanks a lot.”
My all time favorite advice, however, comes from Lee Smith: “Stick with it.”
I mentioned Naomi Epel’s cool deck of writing advice The Observation Deck the other day, which prompted Dustin Lacina to recommend Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of creative prompts. It’s available in a nifty Widget, if you happen to be a Mac owner. If you’re not, I’m sorry about the series of bad decision that has led you to that state of affairs. The prompts are little moments from Eno’s creative process. Things like Water or Go Outside and Shut the Door. They work for me. I’ve been like a self-rewarding rodent ever since I installed it. My Sudoku Widget sits idle. I notice that all parts of the creative process aren’t included, only the punchy moments. Things like Get Drunk or Give Up or Start Over didn’t make the final cut. I’m reminded of a time when I was working on Circuit of Heaven and trying to get a handle on Justine, so I had her tarot cards read. Worked like a charm, as they say. I used to do a little tarot reading in Texas, though never for money. Fiction writing is good preparation. It’s a great workout for the unconscious. Unfortunately, people will believe you, so I quit, though I’ll occasionally do a reading for one of my characters if they ask. My favorite Anne Tyler novel is Searching for Caleb, about a card reader who always counsels the same thing: Change! Amen.